A Place I Actually Enjoyed in Las Vegas – Giada

Name: Giada

NGM Rating: B+

Restaurant Inspection Rating: A

Website: https://www.caesars.com/cromwell/giada#.VVzYUtNViko

Location: The Cromwell Hotel, 3595 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, NV 89109

Cuisine: Italian

Owner/Chef: Giada De Laurentiis

When did it open: June 2014

Ambiance: I had pretty much reached my fill of smoky casinos and Vegas tackiness by the time I went to Giada – the first restaurant by Giada De Laurentiis. If you’ve been to Vegas, you’ll probably sympathize with my sentiment. Walking into Giada, however, I felt somewhat transported back into civilization as the clientele was more reminiscent of an upscale city crowd and the restaurant was actually well lit and breezy (everything is so dark in Vegas). Situated on the second floor of the sleek Cromwell Hotel, Giada is contained within a spacious dining room and adorned by eclectic lighting, huge open windows, great views of the strip and brightly colored decor that set the mood for a good time. My two favorite decorating details are the Warhol-esque portraits that hang along the walls, as well as the inscription that encircles each of the main light beam fixtures, “I eat a little bit of Everything and not a lot of Anything.” I wish I could live by that Giada mantra.

Menu highlights: The Giada menu is expansive and maneuvering through it is difficult, both because of the options and general price tag. We called upon our waitress for suggestions. … still felt overwhelmed. As I’ve mentioned in the past, a bread basket is a great way to give a good first impression, and Giada tries to win you over right away in just this way. The bread “display” consists of a warm serving of homemade rosemary bread, cheese crisps, herbed breadsticks and multiple fixings for dipping and smearing. Whether you’re a group of two or a party of eight, the meat and cheese selection is great. The Pecorino Toscano served with fig preserves was divine. They get you though. … everything is individually priced, and the select option for a cheese and charcuterie plate is limited and draws you right back to the main menu options. … well done making me spend more money. The grilled artichokes were also tasty, but could have been a bit meatier. We ordered two pastas – Giada’s signature spaghetti with shrimp, lemon and basil, and the papardelle with pork ragout. Even though the spaghetti was the “dish to try,” the papardelle was far more impressive with a succulent ragout of shredded pork in a tomato base topped with arugula that gave the dish just the right bite.

What I didn’t get to try: Cocktails, artichoke arancini, imported burrata, crostinis, pizzettes, the signature chicken cacciatore and the dessert cart.

Constructive criticisms: I am not a fan of iPad wine lists in general, so I am going to make a plea with Giada to get rid of those. Please don’t make me stare at one more screen during a meal. The service also left room for improvement. Once a server actually came to our table, there were few glitches and she was very sweet, but that was 20 minutes after being seated. We had to ask for water refills multiple times as well, which in the dry heat of Las Vegas can make anyone supremely uncomfortable.

Best for: Night on the town, escaping the typical Vegas crowd, expense account, personal splurge, groups, girls night

Dress Code: Vegas chic – bring out your best and dress to impress

Average Pricing: Appetizers: $15, Pasta: $30  Entree: $50 , Dessert $8:

Reservations: Reservations are available on OpenTable. Tables are tough to come by at prime times, so try to book in advance. I could only secure a 9:15 p.m. on a TUESDAY.

Modern Italian in a City of Southern Charm @ Indaco

Name: Indaco 

NGM Rating: A-

Restaurant Inspection Rating: A

Website: http://www.indacocharleston.com/

Location: 526 King Street, Charleston, SC 29403

Cuisine: Rustic Italian

Owner/Chef: Steve Palmer and Michael Perez

When did it open: August 2013

Ambiance: Rustic feel all around. Wooden floors, wooden tables, wood-top bar and wooden bar stools. Notice a theme? The restaurant is very warm in ambiance, and it all starts the moment you walk in the door. The host greets you with an abundance of southern hospitality and every server you encounter does the same. … even the ones not assigned to your table. There’s no air of pretension and the vibe is generally casual. All it needs is a wood-burning fire for those cooler winter nights. When the weather suits there is a great outdoor seating area that overlooks the lively nightlife on Charleston’s King Street.

Menu highlights: The pizza is great. Awesome crust and inventive creations that lead you to consume every last bite (at least I did). I thoroughly enjoyed the brussels sprouts pizza, which was a white pizza topped with Fontina, brussels sprouts, honey crisp apples and Pecorino Romano. You may be like my little sister and think the combination sounds strange – particularly the apple bit – but the flavor truly impressed. You’re supposed to explore different flavors in food-centric cities like Charleston, so try this one out. The Cerignola Olives pizza was another table favorite in the pizza department. Our starters were great too. Definitely check out the burrata. The cheese gets two thumbs up and the dish is served with over-sized green olives and house-made flatbread. Really good. The simple Bibb lettuce salad didn’t disappoint as well. Fresh greens done right.

What I didn’t get to try: I was too full for dessert, so I missed the signature toasted almond budino. I could have probably tried each of the other pizzas as well. Pastas were enticing as well. I also missed out on the cocktails. They have quite the list and I probably should have sampled at least one of them.

Constructive criticisms: Not much to criticize here. Very pleasant experience, particularly considering the terrible Thanksgiving-holiday travel endured prior to our arrival at Indaco.

Best for: Date night, dinner with friends, casual occasion, thin-crust pizza fiends

Dress Code: Smart casual

Average Pricing: Cocktails: $10, Appetizers: $13 , Pizza: $15, Entrees: $25 , Dessert: $8 .

Reservations: Reservations are available on OpenTable.

 

People Watching and Mexican in Dallas

If you’re looking for a place to see and be seen in Dallas then Mi Cocina in Highland Park Village may be the place to be. You wouldn’t expect to see stilettos, suits and cocktail dresses for a casual Mexican meal, but I guess things are done differently in Texas. I went here on a Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. and there was already a wait time for tables. Usually Tuesday – and early on a Tuesday – is a good time to snag a table anywhere, but Mi Cocina was already hopping with tables of all sorts – couples, single gals, families, college students and the tables of guys having a night out on the town. The restaurant really works for anyone, but remember to dress to impress. My t-shirt and jeans felt out of dress code and I would have been better off dressing the outfit up with some pumps and a nice top.  I probably stuck out like a sore Northerner thumb. … but it was a fun experience nonetheless.

So, I think I made the point that this place is fun for the people watching. One of those restaurants you could sit at the bar for hours and just watch who comes in and out. If you’re there long enough there’s a probably a good chance you get a celeb sighting of Troy Aikman sighting or another local of equal fame. Speaking of bar. … if you come to Mi Cocina you definitely need to ask for the cocktail list. Margaritas galore. … a flavor for anything you fancy. I took it easy on the drinking since it was ONLY Tuesday night, but the signature Mambo Taxi was pretty tasty. A classic frozen margarita topped with sangria. A couple of those and I would have been toast! I also tried the sangria which was refreshing but came in a glass better served for a fountain soda, not a drink. I probably got 3 glasses of sangria for the price of one though, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. And no. … I couldn’t finish it. Plenty of tequila and other cocktails to go around.

On to the food. There’s really nothing fancy or unexpected here. Pretty much all the Mexican staples you know well with a little added Mi Cocina flare. Guac and chips are a must. It’s pretty much a sin to leave a Mexican restaurant without trying the Guac. … this place is no different. I would also add-on an order of Queso to nosh on before the main meal. The next decision: quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos, fajitas or tamales. This was, I admit, a tough decision. There’s no going really “healthy” at this kind of place, but since everyone was so dressed up and looking their best I felt it would be poor form to really splurge. No one wants to be the fat kid at the restaurant. I went with the Sunset Enchiladas, which consisted of two sizable enchiladas filled with your choice of meat or spinach, jack cheese, topped with the restaurant’s signature Sunset Sauce and served with refried beans and rice on the side. It was pretty big. … and I devoured the whole thing. Proud member of the clean plate club here. I can’t say the quality of the food blew me away, but it was good and I would go back to eat it again. And on the topic of sauces, Mi Cocina makes a number of signature sauces in-house that you can order along with any meal. Definitely worth testing a few out and adding some extra flavor to whatever you’re eating. Someone else at my table got the Fish Tacos that looked tasty too. Might have been a slightly lighter option as well. I know for next time!

There was no room for dessert and we got the check after cleaning all our plates. A fun experience overall and one that I will probably repeat when I go back to Dallas at some point. Dinner won’t break the bank – unless you’re feeling really thirsty – and it’s a good atmosphere for just about anyone. Just make sure you dress the part and remember you’ll probably have to wait a little bit for a table. The place seems to be hopping any night of the week.

Mi Cocina, 77 Highland Park Village, Dallas, TX, 75205. Phone: (214) 521-6426.

When to Book: Mi Cocina does not accept reservations, so you;ll just have to show up and try your luck!

A Warm Aloha From Ka’ana Kitchen

I spent the better part of the past two weeks on the beautiful Hawaiian island of Maui. While I did not go out on the town very often – mainly because food there is very $$$ – there was one dinner I had that’s definitely worth mention. Ka’ana Kitchen is one of the restaurants at the recently opened Andaz hotel in Wailea. Ka’ana means “to share” and that theme permeates the dining experience at this chic hotel restaurant. The dining room and guest attire can be described as casual chic, the menu eclectic and featuring local fare while the atmosphere remained lively. I would definitely have to say Ka’ana Kitchen is a very nice change of pace compared to some other more generic hotel restaurants I have dined at in the past.

Let’s dive right into the food. We did a lot of sharing at my table. That’s the point of the restaurant anyway, right? The menu is a little hard to navigate if your server doesn’t explain it upon seating you (luckily ours was right on point). It’s subdivided into six sections: Ka’ana Classics, Surfing Goat Dairy, Kona Cold Lobsters, Craig Nihei and Bryan Otani Local Farmers, Taguma Wagyu and Vegetarian. The initial thought. … what does this all mean? Each section corresponds to the local farm or food producer that provides the ingredients for each of the corresponding dishes. None of the menu items are generic and, in many instances, you may not even initially believe that all the ingredients could blend well together, but I bet Ka’ana Kitchen will serve you up a pleasant surprise. … I know I was impressed. Also, for those parents out there, the restaurant has a Keiki (aka children’s) menu for the young ones, so don’t feel like you need to leave part of the family at home. It is a sophisticated restaurant, but the staff makes an effort to make all parties feel welcome. We had two children at our table who ordered off the kid’s menu and I must say, the waffle fries were some of the best I ever tasted (yes, I am somewhat embarrassed to say I enjoyed the kid’s menu. … but that means your children should like the food too!)

We began the meal with the Ahi Tataki, Rib-Eye Cap, Watermelon Salad, Chorizo and Peekytoe Crab. The Ahi Tataki was by far the first-round winner. It also happens to be one of the dishes where the flavor mixture did not make much sense to me at first glance – sliced seared tuna with heirloom tomatoes and burratta cheese. I do not really associate mozzarella with fish. Do you? It was a kind of Caprese with a twist. And it really did all work together. The creamy deliciousness coupled with sweet, ripe tomatoes, topped off with the savory fish prepared to near perfection. Melt-in-your mouth type of dish. Round one was not enough food (or it was but we all just wanted to sample some more), so we added the Vegetable Steam Buns, another round of Chorizo and the Makawao Farms Chicken to our order. CHICKEN ALL THE WAY. This dish epitomizes how to effectively complement the savory with the sweet. A gourmet fried chicken served with lavender malasadas (aka fancy donuts) and an asian slaw. Just rich enough without being overwhelming and sinfully delicious. After all that food you think we would be done. Not this group. We never end a meal without dessert. It was a tough call but we deliberated and agreed upon the Coconut Sundae. Coconut ice cream, hot fudge, macadamia nuts and pieces of chocolate cake hidden beneath the mound of ice cream. And you get to add the toppings as you wish. What’s not to like? My only regret is I forgot to snap a photo.

This is when the food coma started to really set in. … and then I felt like I couldn’t move. That’s a sign of a great meal. Or maybe just over-eating. Nevertheless, I was very impressed with Ka’ana Kitchen and felt refreshed by the fact that the experience did not feel sterile and stereotypically hotel-esque. The service was attentive, friendly and knowledgeable. The restaurant has a great vibe and a good scene for people-watching. You should arrive early and enjoy a cocktail at the outdoor bar during sunset. There are great cocktails at the restaurant when you arrive as well. I wouldn’t stay in the Wailea area of the island without giving Ka’ana Kitchen a shot. The price tag may sting, but the quality justifies the sticker shock. Even though the restaurant is fairly new it already has a positive buzz about it and I am sure its popularity will only continue to grow. Mahalo Ka’ana Kitchen! I hope to return again soon.

Ka’ana Kitchen, 3550 Wailea Alanui Drive, Wailea, HI 96753. Phone: (808) 573-1234

When To Book:  Ka’ana Kitchen accepts reservations on OpenTable. We did not have a problem booking a table a couple of days in advance for a party of six, but I would recommend trying to make a reservation in advance of your travels to Maui (assuming you do not live there full-time).

My Hampton Happy Places

So. … I may be a bit picky when it comes to dining out in the Hamptons. I’ve been coming out to the East End for as long as I can remember and, unfortunately, feel as though the restaurant quality has been on the decline for the past several years. Maybe it’s just the way of the world. … the truly local businesses cannot afford to stay with rising rent costs and therefore the only option is to fill vacant spaces with big names like Nobu or BLT East. But these places being pushed out are some of the same places that help keep the economy out there alive during the off-season when coming out to the Hamptons is not necessarily “en vogue.”

I just like to keep it simple. And while I lament the current trends, that does not mean I have not found Hampton dining establishments where simplicity and good food thrive. So, rather than rant and lament current trends (which I definitely could do), I will instead give you a list of my Hampton Happy Places. Hopefully after reading you will feel inspired to check out a few of these gems if you have not yet already. I cannot list all the wonderful farm stands, but these businesses are so, so, so important to life on the East End and we should always remember to support the farms by buying their local produce. And finally, if you read this and are reminded of your favorite Hamptons spot please let me hear about it! I am sure I am still missing some of the special ones.

WaterMill

The Green Thumb
829 Montauk Highway, Water Mill, NY. Phone: (631) 726-1900.

The Green Thumb is a Hamptons icon and the Halsey family has got to be one of the oldest family of farmers in the area. Right off 27 in Water Mill, the Green Thumb offers fresh, local and sustainable produce that you can easily pick up on your way out from the City. It offers select other grocery items as well, but it’s the place’s history and farm-fresh produce that keeps people coming back year-after-year-after-year. I hope this place and other farms like it are able to survive the times because they are truly what makes this area special.

 

Sag Harbor

Beacon
8 W. Water Street, Sag Harbor, NY. Phone: (631) 725-7088.

The restaurant does not take reservations and the wait time is sometimes painful, but the ambiance is one of my Hampton favorites. Situated atop the Sag Harbor Yacht Club, Beacon provides great waterfront views and a sunset that cannot be beat. Even if you have to endure the long wait times on a Saturday night, you can still enjoy a nice glass of Rose as the sun slips away from the sky. My favorite dishes are the Lobster Rigatoni and Halibut, but you cannot really go wrong with the menu. David Loewenberg and Sam McCleland have other restaurants in the Hamptons that also provide very solid meals, but Beacon has always been the one to stick out in my mind.

Big Olaf Ice Cream
8 Wharf Street, Sag Harbor, NY. Phone: (631) 725-7505.

Who does not love an ice cream cone on a hot summer day (or night)? There are plenty of places for fro-yo, ice cream, smoothies, etc… but Big Olaf is a Hampton classic for sure. Situated on Sag Harbor’s Wharf near the water, this small ice-cream shop is best known for the wafting breeze of homemade waffle cones that you can catch a whiff of from down the block. The line on a Saturday after dinner time usually goes well outside the entrance, but a bite of one of those freshly made cones makes the wait worth it. They have plenty of ice cream flavors too. There’s nothing fancy about it except the price tag for a small cone. … but hey, you’re in the Hamptons. Expect Hampton prices.

Dockside
26 Bay Street, Sag Harbor, NY. Phone: (631) 725-7100.

No frills here. Just simple, reliable American fare that can be enjoyed al fresco facing the water. The menu is quite eclectic and offers anything from chicken dumplings to fresh fish and paella. Clearly, the menu is influenced for a diverse range of cuisines. I recommend either eating in the bar area or outside as that’s where the restaurant really comes to life. It’s a great setting, even if the food is not super fancy, and a place that can be enjoyed by the whole family.

Estia’s Little Kitchen
1615 Bridgehampton Sag Harbor Turnpike, Sag Harbor, NY. Phone: (631) 725-1048.

Little is right. This small restaurant on the side of the Bridge/Sag Turnpike is open for Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner and offers breakfast through the lunch hours (always a plus in my book). There is nothing particularly special about the decor, but the restaurant is cozy, welcoming and familial. Sometimes it’s a little too crowded for comfort. … but that means the food is good, right? If you have to wait during the rush times there is a garden out back which provides a more pleasant place to pass the time. I have only eaten here for breakfast/lunch, and am close to being addicted to the breakfast burrito. The predominately American cuisine carries Mexican influences throughout the menu, and all the flavors are really great. This place is still a little gem, so make sure you do not just pass it by when you’re whizzing down the highway on the way to Sag Harbor.

 

Sagaponack/Wainscott

Breadzilla
84 Wainscott Northwest Road, Wainscott, NY. Phone: (631) 537-0955.

First of all, the name is great. Second of all, the signs posted around the bakery always make me chuckle (go in for yourself and check them out). Thirdly, the bread kills it. Especially the cinnamon, sunflower, challah and gruyere. The handmade bagels are pretty solid too. But the real deal at this spot is the awesome lunch served all year round. Every day (except Monday when it’s closed. … yes, even on the long weekends) around 11:30 the barely legible daily lunch menu is posted online. There is an assortment of soups, sandwiches and salads to choose from. Don’t worry about the carbs here. … the fresh bread is SO worth it in this case. The sesame noodles are a must as well. I go here so often they know my name and, at this point, can pretty much figure out what I am going to order too. The classic “TMP” (Tomato, Mozzarella and Pesto) or a Veggie du Jour, and then I am always looking for those sesame noodles. Throw a chocolate chip cookie on top and we’ve got ourself the perfect lunch.

Levain Bakery
354 Montauk Highway, Wainscott, NY. Phone: (631) 537-8570.

It’s all about the cookies. …well. … and the chocolate chip brioche. I generally would not advise spending $4 for a cookie, but these are (nearly) life-changing. There are four cookie varietals and I think the two “musts” are by far and away the Chocolate Chip Walnut and Chocolate Peanut Butter. Divine. And definitely meant for sharing. Eat one of these yourself and you’ll be feeling it for the rest of the day.

The Fairway at Poxabogue
3556 Montauk Highway, Sagaponack, NY. Phone: (631) 521-7100.

Dan Murray and his crew know how to serve a good weekend breakfast or lunch at the Fairway (Disclaimer: I have been coming here since I was probably 12 years old, so I have a lot of affection for this place and its people). Breakfast is served all day and many of the menu items correspond to a “hole” on a golf course. Makes sense since Poxabogue is Sagaponack’s public course. If you like your simple eggs, a bespoke omelette, hearty french toast or maybe a burger is your fancy then this is your place. Try to avoid the rush and go at slightly off times so you don’t have to wait and can snag a prime outdoor seat when the weather suits.

The Seafood Shop
356 Montauk Highway, Wainscott, NY. Phone: (631) 537-0633.

This one may come as a surprise, but the Seafood Shop has the best guacamole and pico de gallo around. Yes, the fish is great too, but MAN that guac. The amount of that stuff consumed in my house over the years would probably disturb most people. So when you go in there to get your tuna, swordfish or lobster. … make sure you pick up at least a pint of that other good stuff too. The Seafood Shop also has great take-out options and will even organize a clambake on the beach for you and your friends.

Twice Upon a Bagel
358 Montauk Highway, Wainscott, NY. Phone: (631) 537-5553.

Fresh bagels. What else could you want? This place has been here for years and is open year-round for both the seasonal crowd and the locals. In addition to bagels, this place provides full deli service at lunch to get whatever sandwich creation you please. Oh, and they make a MASSIVE iced coffee that is sure to keep you buzzing on the beach all day long.

Wolffer Vineyard and Wine Stand
Vineyard: 139 Sagg Road, Sagaponack, NY. Phone: (631) 537-5106. Wine Stand: 3312 Montauk Highway, Sagaponack, NY. Phone: (631)-537-5106.

Famed for its Rose, Wolffer is one of the premier vineyards on the East End. This place is so much more than wine though. There are events at the Vineyard and Wine Stand weekly and it’s always a treat so stop by on the weekends. The Wine Stand is really my favorite spot, particularly on a Friday or Saturday evening in the summer when the lawn is filled with families and friends enjoying live music and taking a load off with a nice glass or bottle of wine. You can do full tastings thee as well. I promise you’ll relax immediately upon arrival and want to stay for hours. Oh. … and the wine goes far beyond the Rose. My personal favorite is the Caya – check it out and report back.

 

East Hampton

Nichol’s
100 Montauk Highway, East Hampton, NY. Phone: (631) 324-3939.

This one is definitely a locals hang out. Whether you’re looking for an easy meal or a cold pint Nichol’s will have you covered. The menu almost has too much to choose from. You can really get close to any sort of pub/comfort food you want. The bread is delicious (definitely not good for you) and comes out piping hot. I usually stick with a solid quesadilla, which comes as a generous portion and of which there are a number of varietals to choose from. It’s simple, easy and sometimes just what the doctor ordered. And. … being an occasional sucker for small details I really like how the restaurant’s interior walls have been formed with old wooden wine cases. A small touch that I always notice and keeps me amused.

Nick and Toni’s
136 N. Main Street, East Hampton, NY. Phone: (631) 324-3550.

OK, I am sure there will be some people who look at this name on the list and think “What is she talking about. … Nick and Toni’s definitely hosts the trendy scene during the summer months.” And yes, that’s true, but it’s far more subdued than some of the other restaurants on the East End. Nick and Toni’s delivers a solid product with amicable service and an ambiance that is somewhat calming. From the bread to the pasta to the enormous tartufo dessert you really cannot go wrong with the food there. Don’t even think about leaving without trying that tartufo. It can feed a table of four and it is so, so good.

 

Amagansett/Montauk

Jack’s Coffee
146 Montauk Highway, Amagansett, NY. Phone: (631) 267-5555.

I am not a big coffee gal, but I do enjoy a cold one from Jack’s on a summer day. Jack’s boasts its stir brew technique and that the product supports fairtrade and is organic. All things people love in their food and beverage products these days. On a Saturday morning the line is almost out the door as the place seems to have acquired almost a cult following. I am guessing a number of those guests are also bemoaning the night before and desperate for a quick caffeine fix.

South Edison
17 South Edison Street, Montauk, NY. (631) 668-4200.

This is a newer addition to Montauk, but one that is great and really fits. South Edison is situated steps away from the beach and offers a seasonal menu focused on seafood and local produce. The restaurant has a great menu, awesome vibe and I have not run into problems with the service either. It definitely draws the crowds (in a good way) and is a fun place to go with a group during the weekends. The shishito peppers, street corn, baked clams and South Edison Clam Bake are all solid picks. Don’t forget the 5-Year Anniversary Sundae as a top off either. Make sure you ask for plenty of extra spoons with that one.

The Lobster Roll
1980 Montauk Highway, Amagansett, NY. Phone: (631) 267-3740.
It’s all about the lobster rolls at this casual eats joint on the way out to Montauk. This place has been around for nearly 50 years and the feature has always been its lobster rolls. The restaurant has a full lunch and dinner menu with many fried fish goodies and other sorts of things, but with a place named after one specific menu item it only seems fitting to get one of those rolls. Note: Great place to walk and grab a quick bite after a couple notorious BBCs at Cyril’s.

 

Eating My Way Through Napa Valley

A few weeks ago I took a vacation in Napa Valley and man is there some good food (not to mention wine) to be tasted in that California region. If you are one who seeks out high quality food and self proclaim yourself a “foodie” this is definitely an area that should be on your bucket list. I spent the better part of my week trying to hit all the highlights, but there is so much to get through that there was no way I could do it all all in six days. … not to mention I spent a fair bit of my time scoping out the vineyards. … minor distraction. So, below is a synopsis of each of the restaurants/food establishments I visited on my trip. I tried to keep each somewhat brief (keyword: TRIED). If you have traveled to the region and have suggestions of places I should have visited please share them with me. I can guarantee there will be another trip in the near future. Enjoy my food journal through the Napa Valley…

Dean&Deluca

This was my first stop after driving up to Napa Valley from San Francisco. I typically do not go on vacation to try things I can get in New York, but this was the original Dean&Deluca and I felt it necessary to drop in. No offense to the New York City locations, but the Dean&Deluca just south of St. Helena a notch (or two) above. You are not going for a sit-down meal, but it’s a great place to just stop in and pick up lunch. Great picnic material in there. If you are renting a house or staying somewhere in Napa Valley where there is access to a full kitchen, Dean&Deluca would also be a great place to go and pick up things to stock up the fridge. It will not be a cheap excursion though. There are great salads (both prepared and make-your-own), hearty sandwiches, a coffee bar, an ample sweet selection and a great wine section. So basically everything you could possibly need for a perfect picnic lunch. There is also some space outside of the shop to leisurely sit and nibble as well.

Press

Press is owned by the same people that brought us Dean&Deluca, and conveniently located next door. It’s best known for its steaks, but Press will not initially strike you as a traditional steakhouse. This will not hit you until you begin perusing the menu.  There’s plenty in store, however, for those (like myself) who do not eat red meat. The restaurant has a lively ambiance with a dining room that’s not too formal and austere, a great bar for drinks or a meal and, additionally, great outdoor space to enjoy the vineyard setting. Like many restaurants in Napa Valley, Press has an extensive wine list with a nice variety of local selections. If you’re a steak lover Press has a cut of almost any thinkable variety and beef is really their specialty. I enjoyed a nice piece of Walu fish with a side dish of summer corn. The side dish was big enough to be a main course and I definitely needed a partner in crime to even make a dent in the serving of corn that arrived at my place setting. I also started the meal with a simple salad of mere butter lettuces with a light mustard vinaigrette. I generally tend to find salads of just lettuce boring and unoriginal, but this understated salad did the trick that night and tasted garden fresh. The meal thus far sounds tame and healthy but I have not yet mentioned the bacon bar menu, which upon spotting I could not help but indulge. If you sit at Press’s bar to eat you can order off either the main menu or abbreviated bar menu (even both if that’s what suits you. …it was certainly the way I went). The bar menu is where the bacon goods reside and there are seven varietals to choose from. You could also go big and just go for the whole bacon sampler.  I would highly suggest having at least one other person with you before embarking down that road. There is anything from the standard applewood smoked to double cut and even wild boar bacon. I thought it was a great idea since many steakhouses I go to do have a bacon offering on the menu, but I had yet to see a separate bacon menu with this many options be. I was stuffed after all this, but that did not stop me from partaking in the grand finale. … dessert. I ordered a strawberry shortcake piled high with fresh whipped cream and strawberries. Embarrassingly enough I devoured almost the entire thing. See the picture for yourself and you will realized that was quite the feat.

Cook

Cook is a small restaurant centrally located in downtown St. Helena. My mom was actually the one who first told me about it, and then there were some locals I met later who also told me it was definitely a place to check out for lunch so I did just that.  One of the first things that caught my eye was the decor. The space is not very big so the dining room is intimate, but the bar set up was very nicely done with a white marble top, very cool glass light fixtures and high shelves behind the bar with every inch lined with rows of wine bottles. I liked the feel of the place from the moment I stepped in and everyone who worked there was genuinely friendly. The menu is of Northern Italian influence with simple preparations that take advantage of local, seasonal ingredients. I stopped in for lunch and had a roasted red pepper and white bean soup and their hand made mozzarella. The soup was not a puree, but rather a very simple broth with whole white beans, slivers of roasted red peppers and an arugula garnish. It was light, not short of flavor and quite savory. The mozzarella was clearly fresh and served with grilled bread drizzled with olive oil. Simple, hearty and just what I needed. There were also a variety of salads, pastas, sandwiches and other entrees on the lunch menu so enough options to please most crowds. Great place to stop in if you’re bopping around the town of St. Helena or you’re taking a break between vineyard stops.

SolBar

SolBar is the restaurant attached to the Solage in Calistoga and a solid stop for foodies gallivanting around the Napa restaurant scene. I happened to be staying in the hotel so I was able to take advantage of the breakfast and dinner selections at SolBar. The restaurant received a Michelin star this year and the chef previously worked at San Francisco’s Gary Denko and Thomas Keller’s acclaimed French Laundry. The dining room itself is a bit formal, but if it’s a nice night and you are able to snag a table outside with the fire pits surrounding you and overhanging trees lined with stringed lights I definitely recommend doing that. The outdoor seating area had a great, relaxing feel to it. I, however, decided as a solo diner to just take my dinner at the bar since the menu was the same anyway. Maybe I should have done the outdoor route, but I may have gotten a little bored. As for the food, everything was delicious and beautifully prepared. I started with a great dish consisting of peaches, prosciutto, dollops of ricotta garnished with arugula. It may sound like a mis-matched assortment of flavors but it all came together very well. I followed that up with a soft-shell crab and a lemon cake with fresh blueberries. I will have to say the beginning and end of the meal were definitely the highlights. Choosing dessert from a menu of cheesecake with fresh local strawberries, lemon cake with fresh blueberries and “Chocolate Decadence” is no easy task. So I did not do it. I told the bartender to bring me his favorite and he did not disappoint. My gut usually leans into chocolate, but in this instance I would have missed out had had I followed my cravings. The lemon cake was perfectly moist with sinfully good blueberries, a toasted meringue that lined the bottom of the plate and verbena ice cream to top it off. The dessert was surprisingly light and impressive.  SolBar is great for dinner, but the restaurant has a killer breakfast too. If you’re staying at the hotel I strongly recommend taking advantage of it. It may cost $20 for an egg sandwich, but hey, you’re on vacation, right?

Tra Vigne

One word – Mozzarella. If you like this creamy cheesy delight you must stop by Tra Vigne in St. Helena during your trip in Napa Valley. I recommend stopping in for lunch and ordering the Mozzarella “Al Minuto.”  Ask if you can add a side of sliced heirloom tomatoes as well just to make it that much more complete. The mozzarella is house made and literally made the moment you order. When the mozzarella arrives at the table, your server will present it and carefully slice the warm goodness onto grilled bruschetta drizzled with olive oil. And yes, it does taste as amazing as it looks. Just make sure to enjoy it quickly since once the cheese starts to cool it’s not as tasty as the warm version. I honestly did not even view the rest of the menu because the mozzarella was the first thing to catch my eye. The restaurant’s ambiance could be improved as you kind of feel like you’re dining in an upscale Italian chain restaurant, but the high-quality food and outdoor dining space help ease the somewhat cheesy interior.

Oenotri

I was not overly impressed by downtown Napa, but someone from the area recommended I stop into Oenotri so I gave it a whirl. I went in for lunch, which probably was not a wise decision as the place was almost empty. I think too many people were out wine tasting and it probably becomes more lively around dinner time. The selling point – and the reason I made the trip in the first place – is the fact that Oenotri makes all of its charcuterie fresh in-house. The dining room is spacious with a large open kitchen, but the ambiance was nothing to really write home about. The charcuterie was definitely tasty though. I received a very generous plated portion of a variety of cured meats to try. There was no prosciutto which was a slight disappointment, but I couldn’t really complain with the other salami selections on my plate. There was a 38 month prosciutto on the menu, but it just did not happen to be on my sampling plate. The restaurant has a pretty extensive cured meats menu and from the flavors you could definitely tell everything was fresh. So if you happen to be in the downtown Napa area and are looking for a place to stop in for a light bite I would check out Oenotri and go right to the “Salumi Menu.”

Farmstead

This place is great for lunch. The whole concept is pretty much everything you want from a Napa Valley food experience. Farmstead is part of Long Meadow Ranch so many of the items showcased on the menu come from there. Honey, eggs, fruits, vegetables and even the grass-fed beef. You name a dish on the menu and its highly likely the ingredients come locally from Long Meadow Ranch. So clearly, the theme is farm-to-table. I recommend the outdoor seating area, which is perfectly peaceful and surrounded by gardens. The interior of the restaurant is nice as well and the kitchen is open so you can view what’s going on “behind the scenes.” There is a great lunch menu with plenty to choose from and I wish I could have gone twice because there were so many things that looked appealing. I was on a big mozzarella binge this week, so I decided to keep the theme going and order an heirloom tomato salad with fresh mozzarella and garnished with sea salt. The tomatoes were of brilliant shades of red and yellow shade and very flavorful. I also started the meal with a grilled artichoke and cheddar biscuits served with honey butter. I am a sucker for a good artichoke when I have one and this one was just what the doctor ordered. Tasted straight off the grill, dripped with olive oil and had a great dipping sauce which Farmstead called “sauce gribiche.’ Definitely not the low-fat kind. The honey butter made the biscuits too. I am sure the honey was local and that sweetness mixed with the savory of the biscuit made for a delightful treat. Needless to say, I was stuffed, but fully satisfied by the end of this meal. Worth making the trip to Farmstead as I think it’s unique to the area and serves food that you will remember for your whole trip. You can also always visit the tasting room next door once the meal is complete as well.

Farm

Farm is the flagship restaurant at the Carneros Inn and a bit more of a “to-do” than the other places of which I have already spoken.The setting is lovely with lounge chairs outside encircling fire pits to keep you warm during the cool Napa nights. The dining room itself is elegant, but could use a bit more lighting to guests could actually read the menu or see clearly what they are eating. Farm’s menu is seasonal and changes frequently based upon what is locally available. Upon walking in the entrance I expected to have a lovely meal, but there were two odd occurrences that definitely jaded my experiences and took my focus away from the food itself. The first impression came when my server arrived at the table to take my drink order. I requested her recommendation from the Cabernet Sauvignon’s on the wine list offered by the glass. Instead of merely pointing out that the 2009 Faust was her preference and of the highest quality she felt the need to comment that she very much liked that wine but because of the price I may not want to order it. Now, maybe this was not meant maliciously or condescending in the slightest, but I prefer to not be sized up when dining out and can decide on my own whether a glass of wine is too expensive or not. I am not one to make a huge fuss at the table, however, so I ordered my glass and was prepared to move on to the rest of my meal. But then a second oddity happened. I had asked to keep the wine list at my table in case I decided to order something else. So after ordering my meal I began to leaf through it and see what else was on the list. A lot of this was out of genuine curiosity and interest about the make up of the Farm’s wine list. Instead of allowing me to be in my own peaceful bliss, another man who worked at the restaurant (he appeared to be the sommelier, but I cannot say for sure) felt the need to come over to the table only to say, “Should I grab you a magazine instead?” This really got me heated inside, but I again very politely laughed it off. I found it odd that he felt the need to swing by my table and point out that fact that I was alone and probably needed some entertainment. I was doing just fine. … I just wanted to look at the wine list. Maybe even buy a bottle and spend even more money. And I have now digressed a touch too far. … back to the food. The menu has two formats – a tasting or a la carte. I opted out of the tasting because the main menu looked more interesting. I will give Farm credit on this front. The dishes are creative and combine flavors I would not necessarily pick together on my own. I began with roasted baby beats served with grilled peaches, honey yogurt, red quinoa and wild arugula. The execution of this dish was well done and the different textures combined with distinct degrees of sweetness between the yogurt, beets and peaches made this appetizer a winner. I had the Jidori Chicken entree, which consisted of tender meat served with pole beans, basil aioli, slow egg, tomato jam and natural jus. Also delicious, but I did think there was too much going on with the plate in this case. The slow egg seemed misplaced and it was not clear what I was supposed to do with the tomato jam garnish. Dessert brought it all together though and was the highlight of the meal. When something is called “Mint Bliss” it’s probably a no-brainer. And this rendition was well worth the extra calories. Here are the ingredients: dark chocolate, graham pudding, whipped white chocolate and chocolate shortbread crumble. Oh yea, and there was a mint mousse and ice cream in there as well. The preparation is hard to picture (and the photo I have does not do it justice), but take my word for it and try it if you ever find yourself at Farm.

Redd

Pork buns, Pork buns, Pork buns. I cannot tell you how many people I encountered during my trip that told me 1) I needed to experience Redd and 2) when I did I could not leave without trying the pork buns. I had heard about the restaurant prior to all this advice and knew it was a local favorite, but I had no idea about these highly esteemed pork buns. Could they really be that exciting? Well, I obviously had to go and try them out. I was unable to score a reservation at Redd, but luckily the restaurant has a lively bar that I was able to squeeze into on a busy Tuesday evening. If I had been able to get a table I would likely request outdoors as the setting on the patio looked quite charming and serene. The restaurant is located in the heart of Yountville, which is home to a number of other Napa foodie favorites as well. There was a great liveliness about the place and it was buzzing the Tuesday night I dropped in. I was able to squeeze myself into the last available seat at the bar, which was fortunate since not shortly after there was a decent wait time for people looking to sit at a coveted bar seat. The bar space is not very big but there are also a couple high-top table for two behind the bar that serve the same purpose. The restaurant is relaxed by nature but the food evokes elegance in its preparations. So I clearly ordered the pork buns. I had to. … there was too much hype to pass those up. And yes, they were good. The dish definitely has Asian influences and consists of two puff, doughy buns (not sure how else to describe them) topped with small chunks of pork smothered in a sweet glaze and garnished with a house-made slaw. Either order as a main course or to share as an appetizer. The pork buns are on the bar menu so if you’re sitting in the dining room you may have to ask very nicely to have a try. I also tasted a local heirloom tomato salad with corn, squash and two toasts topped with goat cheese and olive tapenade. The vegetables were fresh, flavorful and even the simplest salad was prepared in a way that that I was almost afraid to destroy the creation. Those toasts with the goat cheese and olive tapenade were also darn good. Dessert was chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. Chocolate mousse cake with peanut butter praline, caramel and milk sherbert. Need I say more? And again, the presentation was delicate and beautiful. My sweet tooth got the better of me though and I dug right in. In addition to the food, Redd has a great cocktail menu and extensive wine list. I will say, however, the bartender working that night was not the friendliest to me. While other guests received an amuse bouche or the recipients of other small hospitable gestures I was somewhat ignored in the corner and enjoyed my meal mostly in silence. The food was great but a little more attentiveness would have gone a long way.

Redd Wood

This is the more casual sister restaurant to Redd and is attached to the neighboring North Block Hotel. Since it is not located right in the center of Yountville, Redd Wood is in a more quiet and relaxed setting than other restaurants right on the main street of town. The restaurant has a sleek design with black leather banquets, a noteworthy giant steel door, numerous intriguing light fixtures and an impressive bar set up that has an old-fashioned feel to it. There is also al frescodining  for those who want to enjoy the scene on the near by Yountville streets.  Influenced by Italian cuisine, Redd Wood provides a menu that features wood-oven pizzas, pastas and house-made charcuterie, among many other things. I enjoyed a charcuterie plate and an heirloom tomato and burrata salad (I told you I was on a mozzarella binge). The charcuterie was a nice selection of cured meats that each had distinct flavor that tasted very fresh. The pizzas that I saw from other tables also looked intriguing and I probably should have given them a whirl. Would have been too much food for one person though. … save it for next time!

Farm-to-Table in the Adirondacks @ The Uptown

I was invited up to Lake George a couple weekends ago by a very good friend of mine to spend two nights with her and her family. The last time I went up to the lake with her was probably eight years ago, but going up there always brings back memories of my childhood summers as our families used to spend a lot of time together up there. I was particularly excited about this trip because since my last visit, the family had opened a restaurant called The Uptown in the small town of Hague. Over the past couple years I had heard how the restaurant was developing and how chefs from prestigious New York City kitchens (Ex. Mas Farmhouse, Mas Grillade, Esca, etc.) were spending their summers up north to cook at the Uptown.

I was anxious to finally experience the restaurant for myself and excited to see what my friend’s family had built from the ground up. Just in case this was not clear and so you all are given full disclosure. … I am personally tied to the owner, Lauren Parlin, and have known her and her family for the past 23 years. That being said, this will be my objective view of their restaurant. … It’s a charming place with good food, however, so there will be number of positive things said.

The Uptown embodies the farm-to-table concept that has become ever more popular in the world of fine dining. Menu ingredients come from local farms both in New York and Vermont. There is even a wonderful blossoming garden out in front of the restaurant growing dill, tomatoes, squash, basil, etc. … with brightly colored Adirondack chairs on its perimeter inviting you to take a load off and stay for a while. The restaurant’s atmosphere is warm, charming and one of those places where upon walking in you feel like everyone is connected in some familial way. The dining room is intimate with no more than ten tables and a five-seater bar where you can enjoy a glass of wine or take dinner. On the topic of wine. … Lauren selects all the wines for the wine list herself, and has created a diverse sampling of grape from all regions. We even drank a bottle of white from Hungary which was new for me and quite delicious paired with the meal.

The rest of the restaurant’s decor is quirky in a very deliberate way. There is a large antique sign above the restrooms from an old Uptown Store, which I am fairly certain inspired the restaurant’s name in the first place. No two tables match, all appear to be antique and one of the tables is even being held up by four tea cups as its base. Lovely fresh cut flowers are at each table in silver tea pots of different shapes and sizes, and you receive brightly colored bandanas as napkins. Nothing is fabricated, overdone or misplaced and, overall, the ambiance complements the simple beauty of the surrounding Adirondack environment.

Moving on to the main event. … the meal itself. The Uptown’s menu is limited and changes daily based upon ingredients locally available. Lauren takes great pride in the freshly made salad preparations, so there is always a small or large salad bowl selection that’s a fresh, solid way to start your meal off on the right foot. Many of the entrees are served family style as “platters” and that seemed to be the route many diners took while there (myself included). The evening I was there the shared menu offerings were a roasted half-chicken served with English peas and glazed carrots as well as a whole roasted rabbit with grilled spring onions and pickled currants. Additionally, you can order single-person entrees of which there are three-to-four other offerings. One that I believe is offered pretty regularly and quite popular is a marinated skirt steak served with garlic mashed potatoes and summer squash. As previously mentioned, the chefs in the kitchen are highly trained from top restaurants in New York City. The quality you receive at the Uptown holds to those standards without all the over-the-top bells and whistles you receive in the New York City fine dining circle. The preparations are simple, but the flavors are  really what brings people coming back for more.

I was eating with a group of five – most of which was the Parlin family – so we ordered both the chicken and rabbit platters to share. The chicken was tender and the vegetables really did taste as though they had just been picked from the garden. It was my first time trying rabbit – an offering I found intriguing for a restaurant with such a small menu – and my initial skepticism of it being too gamey or tough for me to enjoy were quickly proven wrong. The meat was succulent and the pickled currant garnish gave the dish a subtly sweet finish. I will say, however, it was hard to get a hearty amount of meat off those bones, so be prepared to exert a little extra effort to get your full portion of rabbit. There are also a few side dishes offered each evening and the cous cous on the menu that particular night was probably the most impressive thing I ate – save for the dessert which I will get to shortly. I do not know how the kitchen made such a simple side dish taste so delicious, but if you head to the Uptown and the cous cous is still on the menu I think it’s a must-try. There was not much to it either – Israeli-style cous cous seasoned with lemon and small pieces of chopped carrot sprinkled in between. It does not sound like much, but you just have to try it to believe me.

Oh, and I almost missed the appetizer course! So, obviously, we got a large salad bowl. It consisted of mixed fresh greens with string beans, cucumbers and blueberries mixed in between. We also ordered the cheese puffs and a mix of the crostini. The cheese puffs are a quick pop ’em in your mouth indulgence. Not much to them, but you get a quick Gruyere delight. There were three types of crostini offered the evening I was there – chicken salad, ricotta-lemon and a squash toast with tomato. They are really bite-sized so do not order just one or two and think they will be easy to share. If you are a table of two, I suggest trying one of each, and if you are art of a larger table you will definitely want to double up. The squash toast on paper did not really catch my eye, but luckily Lauren’s daughter Anna added it to our order because it ended up being my favorite one. I would highly suggest ordering starters and asking for them to be brought out as separate courses even – start with the crostini and cheese puffs, and follow it up with a salad course. The reason being that all of the entrees are cooked to order and take a decent amount of time to prepare. So, if you do not order any appetizers your stomach may begin to grumble and you may feel like the service is slow as the kitchen works to prepare the meal. Spacing it out can alleviate this wait time and ease angst about not having any food on the table.

Finally, there was dessert. Lauren’s eldest daughter, Liz (maybe she would like to be more formally addressed as Elizabeth, but I’ll keep it colloquial) is at the pastry helm this summer and her desserts are really something. I have had the privilege of tasting her baked goods since I was approximately five years old, but her confections at the Uptown are no simple chocolate chip cookie. The chocolate ganache cake appeared to be the weekend’s most popular as it sold out both nights I was there. I also overheard a couple other patrons raving about it. This is no dainty piece of cake and I recommend sharing unless you have an outrageous sweet tooth and appetite. Just look at the picture. … I do not think more needs to be said there. The other two desserts offered that evening were a berry rhubarb crumble and blueberry lemon cake with cream cheese frosting. Yes, I tried them all. The cakes were my favorites, but that’s also just my general restaurant bias. The warm crumble was no less delicious so if you’re partial to fruit-based desserts it’s worth giving it a whirl.

In an area where high quality food can be hard to come by you can find solace in the fact that the Uptown has made Hague its home. It is a fit for any occasion and when you come in you will be treated like family. Most of the Parlin family can even be found dining there every weekend. … it has to be a good sign that they are willing to eat their own product week in and week out. Keep in mind the dining room is small and you should plan to make a reservation in advance. The restaurant also serves Sunday brunch and the BLT with an add-on fried egg is a must. If any of my readers make the trip up there I would love to hear any feedback!

The Uptown, 9819 Graphite Mountain Road, Hague, New York, 12836. Phone: (518) 543-6202.

When To Book: Since space is limited I would recommend booking a table a couple days in advance. If you know you will be on Lake George during a weekend it is probably prudent to book sometime during that week prior. Also, keep in mind The Uptown is not open for dinner on Sunday and closed on Monday. It is also a seasonal restaurant and open during summer months.

Colicchio’s Latest in Culinary Innovation @ The Topping Rose House

Two weeks ago I got a taste of one of the Hampton’s newest restaurant additions – The Topping Rose House. The Topping Rose has the promise to be the new luxe destination for summer weekenders this season. It’s going to come at a price, of course. Rooms go for ~$1,000 per night, but you will be able to decompress at what looks like it will be an impressive spa and enjoy the fine dining experience that comes with a Tom Colicchio restaurant. I am going to focus on the restaurant more than the Inn itself, but they did do a great job of restoring an historic landmark in the center of Bridgehampton. From the outside, the building fits in nicely with the town’s surroundings and does not stick out as a gaudy eye sore. I think this was some people’s concern upon fist hearing about the new luxury accommodations coming to town. The inn and spa are not in full swing yet, but promise to be by the summer rush not too far off. In the meantime, people, like myself, who sometimes make the trip out there in the off-season have the privilege of testing the restaurant before it becomes impossible to get a table. Come Memorial
Day that will surely be the case.

Topping Rose is elegant but not in the same way Colicchio designed Craft or Riverpark where you enjoy a meal in a lavish dining room. The setting itself is rather quaint and it feels as though you are dining in the middle of a farmhouse. The decor is wonderful and brings forth a comfortable ambiance. The real elegance at Topping Rose lies rather in the preparation of the food. This is not my first Colicchio experience, so I know what to expect in terms of food quality and his general flare for modern and seasonally appropriate cooking. The off-summer menu was definitely reflective of winter and early spring flavors, so I will be interested to see what comes next in the summer time when Hampton tomatoes, corn and other farm-fresh goodies blossom in abundance.

The menu item of the night at our table was the Tilefish. I strayed from the other three and decided to try one of the pastas instead. Given the exuberance and high recommendation for the Tilefish, however, it’s probably worth a try. The fish is served with gold and blue potatoes, leeks and preserved lemons. Now, be careful here. When the server described the dish to us it was conveyed that there would be a puree of leeks beneath the fish and a noticeable serving of said preserved lemons. What actually came out was a delicately prepared fish with a light sauce infused with leek and lemon flavors. This was confusing to a few members of the table, who insisted they get to the bottom of this mystery and find out where the leeks and lemon resided. To their dismay, the puree was not missing just slightly misrepresented from the beginning. Nonetheless, the overall review for the fish was positive and all three people I dined with seemed to enjoy the light and flavorful dish.

I do not order pasta very often, but on this occasion I had a particular craving for a new and inventive carb creation. I tried the restaurant’s Smoked Pappardelle, which is topped with a slow poached egg. All of the pastas at Topping Rose are made in house and, in the case of the Pappardelle, they actually smoke the pasta noodles so they taste just the faintest bit of delicious smoked meats. The sauce is light and the poached egg adds a rich twist to the dish. I am glad I ordered the smaller portion because anything more may have been too decadent. For a starter, I had the Fennel, Radish, Celery and Cucumber Salad which is one of the appetizers I hope never comes off the menu. It’s great for every season and filled with fresh, refreshing greens and finished off with a light goat-yogurt herb dressing. While I enjoyed my entire meal this simple preparation was probably the highlight.

Additionally, we ordered the Fried Oysters with Braised Chili Bacon which were a nice twist the standard raw oyster. I am no huge fan of oysters myself, but these were delicious (maybe because they did not really taste like oysters!). The oysters were not over-fried and together with the bacon I could almost transport myself to a beach BBQ. Yet another good preparation for all seasons. The other must-do on the menu is checking out the side dishes. Generally side dishes are not a main attraction for any meal, but picking up the Brussel Sprouts and Roasted Cauliflower are a great way to round out a meal at Topping Rose. They are simple, but you won’t be disappointed.

 

There was, of course, some dessert to finish off the meal. By this time I was quite satisfied, but I did need something small and sweet to top me off for the evening. There were quite a few inventive ice cream flavors to sample and even though it seemed like the simple choice I went with a few scoops of coffee ice cream. There was also Lemon Meringue Tart and Apple Tarte Tatin at the table so I snagged a small taste of each. They were both great, but the Tarte Tatin beat out and would be my pick to anyone looking for a dessert suggestion. The restaurant also brings out petit fours of mini chocolate chip cookies and other small chocolate treats, so I doubled up on my ice cream and enjoyed a few of those. At the end of the meal, in true Colicchio fashion, you receive a small satchel of house made granola to remember the restaurant by as you enjoy breakfast the next morning.

Topping Rose will be a great addition to the Hampton restaurant scene, but it should definitely be reserved for a special occasion. To me, this is not a restaurant you bring the little kids on a random Friday evening or make a standing reservation at every weekend. Some people might do this, but I think it de-values the special nature of the place. It’s not gaudy, pretentious or over-the-top, but when you walk in you know you’re in for a treat so savor it that way. I would love to check out the brunch and will likely do so at some point this summer when occasion allows, so be sure to look for a Topping Rose update.

The Topping Rose House, One Bridgehampton – Sag Harbor Turnpike, Bridgehampton, NY, 11932. Phone: (631) 537-0870.

When To Book: I recommend booking a table at Topping Rose as early as you can plan. Even in the off-month of March, our options for a Saturday seating were 6 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. It will be even busier in the summer so get to planning sooner rather than later.

Taking on L.A.’s Brunch Scene @ Blu Jam Cafe

I traveled to L.A. a few weeks back for a long weekend and discovered a new brunch spot that I have been craving ever since I left. It may have been my first time stumbling into Blu Jam, but its is by no means a hidden gem to those who regularly peruse the L.A. brunch scene. I thought I was being sly by trying the restaurant on a Monday afternoon in an attempt to avoid the Saturday and Sunday rush, but this, however, backfired and did not work out as planned. Apparently everyone else wanted to brunch of their day off too!

We arrived at Blu Jam around 1 p.m. and even from a couple blocks away I could see the groups of people crowded outside the restaurant waiting for their names to be called (Note: remember we are in California and it’s actually warm there in February). If I was in New York I might have called it quits right there and then – there’s always another time to stop by and there are also usually five other options within a three block radius.  Since I am only in California every couple of months, my friends and I decided to stick out the wait since we all wanted to give the place a try.

The host alerted us it would probably be an hour wait, but I thought this was just a ploy to discourage people and turn them away. I was starving, but I was also convinced the wait would be 40 minutes at worst so we sucked it up, put our name on the list and meandered around Melrose Ave to pass the time. When we arrived back at the restaurant a short 40 minutes later I expected we would be the next threesome called. Wrong again! We were still third. A couple of tables cleared shortly after and then we were next. I could almost taste the eggs! One hour passed, then one hour and ten minutes, and just as our hopes were dwindling at the one-hour-and-twenty-minute mark, the host called our name and I immediately felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders (and my stomach).

Normally popular restaurants with long waits feel no remorse. They are the “cool,” “trendy” and “hip” place to be so obviously you’re supposed to wait your turn before getting the opportunity to enjoy such a coveted experience. That’s what I expected from Blu Jam – a curt apology for the wait but nothing more. The restaurant, however, takes a different approach and actually finds a way to make patrons feel good even after an appetite-provoking wait time. Upon being seated there was a piping hot order of the restaurant’s signature Crispy French Toast compliments of the chef. Apparently Blu Jam believes that if you patiently wait for an inordinate amount of time you should be rewarded. I cannot remember a time where such a nice (and delicious) gesture was offered to me, and I commend the restaurant for its hospitality. Immediately sold! It also felt good not having to spend the extra $12.95 to try Blu Jam’s signature breakfast dish. The french toast is prepared with brioche toast that has been rolled in crunchy corn flakes and topped with berries, bananas and a vanilla bean sauce. I had not eaten french toast in a while, but this version was lights out. there should be an order on every table for each person to at least have a small taste.

 

In addition to the french toast Blu Jam offers a great menu of breakfast and lunch items. The best part is that breakfast is served all day seven days a week. I am a huge fan of breakfast/brunch food so any place with quality food that also offers breakfast options anytime I want gets a gold star in my book.   The menu is extensive so the decision process was daunting, but I think it’s difficult to go wrong. When we asked our server what his favorite egg dish was, he got so excited about the menu that by the time he finished running though his “top” picks we realized he had just spoken about 50 percent of the options. That did not really help narrow our decisions, but at least we knew he thought highly of the chef.

I had been eyeing the Eggwich since the beginning of our wait time so I stuck with my gut. An egg sandwich may seem generic for a place that has so many diverse choices, but this was anything but dull – over easy eggs with strips of crispy bacon, avocado, sliced tomatoes, arugula and pesto aioli on ciabatta. The sandwich was huge and I was not sure if I would even be able to pick it up, but I handled it just fine and there was not even one leaf of arugula left when I was through with it. I did not try the Norwegian Benedict or Make-Your-Own Scramble that my friends ordered, but they each seemed equally satisfied with their meals.

So what’s the verdict? Long waits can be a drag, but if you have the time on a sunny afternoon and want a hearty brunch or just have a random craving for breakfast I suggest stopping in at Blu Jam. You can probably be smarter than I was and go at off-peak times such as a random weekday or Saturday/Sunday before 11 a.m. and after 3 p.m. to expedite the process. The food was delicious and fresh with plenty of options for everyone, and the service was amicable. Even though the restaurant was extremely crowded and there continued to be a wait outside while we were dining, I did not feel hurried through our meal and the food was served within a very reasonable time frame.

Blu Jam Cafe, 7371 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA, 90046. Phone: (323) 951-9191

When to Book: Blu Jam Cafe does not take reservations and can be extremely busy during peak hours. Expect to wait thirty minutes to one hour during brunch rush hour. 

Harbor-Side Dining @ Beacon Restaurant

September is one of my favorite months to head out to the Hamptons for a number of reasons. The masses have retreated, the weather is still fantastic, the produce still tastes freshly picked from the local farm and you can actually get a table at some of the more popular restaurants. This weekend I took full advantage of the off-season and went to Sag Harbor’s Beacon Restaurant. This was not my first time at Beacon and it continues to be one of my top five restaurants in the Hamptons. The setting is serene, the experience pleasant and the food does not disappoint.

Let me start by setting the mood. After driving through the quaint town of Sag Harbor you veer to the left and drive west down Water Street until you reach the Sag Harbor Yacht Club. It would be very easy to drive by without noticing it except for the swarm of cars feverishly looking for a parking spot during dinner time. That’s when you know you’ve reached the destination. The restaurant is situated above the Yacht Club and overlooks the harbor. It’s peaceful, a great view and if you catch it right you can witness a gorgeous East End sunset from your table outside. Beacon does not take reservations, so when you walk up the stairs on a busy summer night the first thing you encounter is a jovial scene of those waiting for tables enjoying cocktails on the porch.  The place is always bustling with people, but it’s never overwhelmingly noisy. Nobody even seems to mind the wait (and in peak Hampton season it can be a LONG wait). On this beautiful September evening there was no line (maybe because we showed up at 6:15 p.m.) and we were lucky enough to snag the last outdoor table that looked out over the boats on the water.

In addition to the tranquil setting Beacon’s menu offers new American cuisine with enough choices to satisfy many taste buds. I have sampled many of the menu items, and while there is nothing that has stood out as a disappointment there are a few “must try” dishes. First, the Lobster Rigatoni. This dish without a doubt should be on every table at Beacon.  It should not be one of your “choices,” but rather should be placed on the table right next to the bread basket. The short, thick rigatoni pasta is topped with a light aged cheddar and cream sauce with basil, sweet corn and large chunks of lobster meat mixed throughout. I won’t describe it any further. … you just have to try it. Second, the Pork Chop Milanese. This dish is so large it could probably serve your whole table. At the very least it is plenty for two to share.  The pork chop is breaded, pounded thin and topped with a salad full of local greens, tomatoes, caramelized onions, Parmesan cheese and a delicious vinaigrette. This one is really tasty and won’t leave you going home hungry. Go with one of the fish dishes if you’re craving a lighter meal. I went with the Halibut baked in Parchment with Sun-Dried Tomato and Israeli Cous Cous. This is a simple fish dish, but the baking technique with the parchment brings out the best flavor in the Halibut. The dessert selection isn’t bad either. Saturday we decided to hold on to the last glimpse of summer we could find and ordered Beacon’s Homemade Ice-Cream Sandwich. Two large chocolate chip cookies sandwiched between vanilla ice-cream topped with chocolate sauce and some berries. Mm Mm Good! The only complaint from our table was the skimpy portion of chocolate sauce. Note to the pastry chef: Do not be afraid to top it off generously with some more sauce! 

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Beacon is great no matter what the occasion. In the heat of summer the wait can sometimes be long and frustrating, but in all honesty it is one of the few Hampton gems worth the hype (and the price tag). There are obviously plenty of restaurant offerings in the area, but Beacon’s unique setting coupled with the consistently solid food and lively atmosphere set it apart from other Hampton hot spots. If you go and feel differently. … I am all ears!

Beacon Restaurant, 8 West Water Street, Sag Harbor, NY, 11963. 

When To Go: Beacon does not accept reservations and begins serving dinner at 6 p.m Wednesday-Sunday. If you want to avoid a long wait I suggest getting there early and snagging one of the coveted outdoor tables. In the summer, be prepared to wait no matter what. Come with a positive attitude and find a refreshing cocktail to enjoy until a table frees up. If you plan to dine in the off-season keep in mind they close the restaurant in the winter months, so make sure to visit in September or October.